The Financial Express

Checking Bangladesh's fast-shrinking farmland

Checking Bangladesh's fast-shrinking farmland

There is a need for working out an effective strategy to check the country's fast-shrinking arable land and thus maintain the momentum in increasing its food grain production.

Such views were expressed by some agricultural experts at a recent seminar. The loss of agricultural land, they said, would not help boost production. We must find out a proper solution to the problem, they added.

The government alone cannot put an end to unplanned construction of dwelling houses on arable land. In such a situation, experts insist, we also have to find out a way on how more crops could be produced in a small land, a suggestion that must be seriously taken into consideration.

They also suggest the non-government organisations (NGOs) operating in the countryside need to supplement the government efforts to develop the agricultural sector which accounts for 16 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

It is hard to believe we are losing nearly 69,000 hectares of agricultural land a year due to industrialisation, unplanned urbanisation and increase in rural settlements.

A study carried out in this regard indicated a regular and increasingly declining trend in land available for farming. Between 1976 and 2000, around 13,412 hectares of agricultural land was lost.

In contrast, in the subsequent period - from 2000 to 2010 -, over 30,000 hectares of land was lost. Rapid urbanisation with new roads and highways and a growing population are occupying a vast tract of agricultural land.

However, through the efforts of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council (BARC), the country' crop production per unit of land has considerably increased over the years. This has helped to offset certain effects of the continuing decline in availability of arable land all over country.

As urban areas worldwide continue to grow, the population spreads to the surrounding rural and suburban areas. This puts pressure on farmers to give up their croplands and fields so that houses in the countryside can be 'grown'.

Many farmers give in to the economic pressures when they realise that the land that they are farming can provide them with substantial cash and they would no longer be engaged in a practice that is at the mercy of weather and economic conditions.

The loss of agricultural land to urbanisation means an increase in environmental problems such as air pollution, transportation problems, loss of critical habitat and green space, and a degradation of water quality.

Another problem is soil degradation or the loss of a soil's natural fertility. When this occurs, productivity of the land decreases, without added use of fertilizers and other chemicals.

As noticed, urbanisation affects food production in two ways - by removing agricultural land from cultivation, as cities expand, and by reducing the number of family farms, as more farmers move to cities. The spread of cities alone consumes enormous tracts of farmland in much of the world.

As for Bangladesh, long-term outlook appears to be bleak as unplanned growth of population is complicating the process of meeting the demand for food, basic health requirements and educational facilities - triggering unemployment and social unrest.

The prospect is really discouraging as resources are outrunning habitants. Trees are being chopped down for fuel regularly. Climatic disruption in recent times, followed by salinity intrusion, shrinking farmlands and crop losses, has added to the woes of the people.

What is alarming is that a fast-growing population in the country, already with the world's highest density of people, is looking for new land to build homes. Entrepreneurs are going to the remote areas to set up factories.

There will be no cultivable land left in Bangladesh in 50 years if the process of taking away farmland for non-farm purposes at the current annual rate continues. If the trend is not reversed now, the country would permanently lose its food security, making its poor population more vulnerable to volatile international commodity prices.

The government has taken some steps including banning use of arable land for purposes other than agriculture. This is a laudable step. A high-level committee suggested that the factories and educational institutions that have already been built should now go vertical, instead of grabbing more arable land.

The dwindling size of farms, rise in landlessness and constant depletion of farmland are posing formidable threats to Bangladesh's agriculture, with possibility of increasing poverty and trapping many ultra-poor in a vicious circle. The average farm size has been reduced to less than 0.6 hectares and the percentage of landless people stands at 58 in a country where nearly 80 per cent of the ultra-poor live in rural areas.

However, worries about farmland depletion at an alarming rate have fallen into deaf ears to, while calls for ensuring optimum utilisation of arable land and bringing fallow land under cultivation remain in rhetoric alone. Successive governments concentrated all their focus on higher production of rice, while import bills for fuel, cooking oils and pulses continued to inflate.

A long-pending suggestion to bring slight changes in crop pattern for diversifying agriculture remains unattended by the policymakers.

An ironic thing about agricultural land loss is that the land is going away because of a growing population that will require more agricultural products to sustain it.

The causes of agricultural land loss are often rooted in the growth strategies of urban areas and are facilitated by politics and economics. The mitigation strategy for the problem can be found in the same places.

Such decline in arable land is worrisome. The authorities concerned should go for regular surveys of arable land to present an accurate figure so that necessary steps can be taken to save this land. It is quite a gigantic task, but it should be done at regular intervals.

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